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Making life count

Cross Examined
|Written By Kathryn Leger
Making life count
William Brock and his wife, lawyer Maryse Bertrand.

William Brock is not by nature a gambler, preferring calculation to chance. “I am organized, I am disciplined, and I like to win,” declares an unabashed Brock, a Montreal lawyer who works on some of Canada’s biggest litigation cases for Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP. Each litigation case is another chess game, as he puts it, full of careful deliberations and strategic preparation for an eventual successful assault on the opponent.

The approach helped pay off as Brock acted on the winning team from Davies for BCE Inc. in the landmark Supreme Court of Canada case against Bell Canada bondholders, and for Hollinger Inc. in its action to obtain a freeze order on the international assets of media baron Conrad Black.

These days Brock is relishing another victory in one high-stakes battle, one of the rare times he was certain at first he would lose. In June, Brock returned from a six-week cycling odyssey through Europe to mark the passage of his fifth year in remission from leukemia and to raise money for education and research on blood cancers at Montreal’s HÃÆ’’pital Maisonneuve-Rosemont, a teaching hospital affiliated with the Université de Montréal. The anniversary of his survival of a disease that has a 70-per-cent mortality rate comes every September.

Brock raised more than $300,000 on the ride of almost 3,000 kilometres, bringing the total money raised so far for the fund set up in his name at the hospital to more than $1 million. Thousands of dollars continue to pour in and — pumped to conquer yet a new threshold — he has set his sights on collecting at least another $3 million by the time his 10th anniversary of survival rolls around in 2015.

The European cycle journey was a “bookend” to months of suffering, imposed reflections on life and death, and the primal fight to survive after he was diagnosed on Sept. 21, 2004 with acute myeloid leukemia. His father had been diagnosed with the same virulent strain of leukemia almost one week to the day seven years earlier and only lived six more weeks. “I was sure, sure, sure I was going to die and Oct. 30 [six weeks after diagnosis] was my expiration date, you know, like on a milk carton,” recalls Brock. He failed the first trial of chemotherapy, then came a second round, a grim so-called supralethal treatment over 10 days to sterilize his bone marrow so there could be a bone marrow transplant, ultimately from older brother Gordon Brock, who turned out to be a perfect match.

There were long days in isolation waiting to see if Day Zero — the first day of such a transplant (his was Dec. 17, 2004) — then followed by Day 1, was really the start of a new life where each day is counted until the milestone five-year mark considered to be a full recovery.

His carbon-fibre trekking bike, ordered a month before he fell sick and delivered two days after he was first hospitalized, became a symbol of determination and hope. It was installed in his hospital room along with a special wheeler to turn it into a stationary bike. “I remember waking up at night and all the lights were off except the lights of the chemo pump and I could hear the poison being pumped into my veins and I looked at that bike and said, ‘I am going to pedal you one day.’

“All we control is how we react,” Brock says now. “I believe that if you don’t control events, the events will control you. And therefore I believe that you really need to act, you can’t react. I made sure every day in the hospital I would get up, I would get dressed, I would get shaved.”

It took two years to fully recover from the bone marrow transplant. At first he could only work 25 per cent of the time, the next year 50, and then finally the BCE case, on which he worked full time.

Brock channelled the same grit and pugnacity that has marked his legal career and his fight against leukemia into the European bicycling trip. He was already an avid outdoor enthusiast and adventurer before he was diagnosed, cycling often and travelling at least for one full week each year with a group of friends to kayak in some faraway destination.

After a ceremonial dip of his foot in the ocean at Saint-Nazaire, France, it was only smooth sailing. The weather was lovely and Brock was joined by hematologists Denis Claude Roy and Jean Roy, two of the doctors who had worked to save his life. They were part of a group of nine people, including his wife, lawyer Maryse Bertrand, general counsel for CBC/Radio-Canada, who accompanied him on part of the journey through France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Hungary.

Then rain — and mud — set in as Brock and his companion cyclists worked to meet their goal of pedalling about 80 kilometres each day. “I underestimated the amount of cumulative fatigue that would build up if I didn’t take rest days,” says Brock. Then the hills between Switzerland and Germany came, bringing another endurance challenge. “I remember saying to myself, ‘If I get off this bike, how am I going to get back on and start again?’ So I said to myself, ‘I am not going to stop, I am just going to keep pedalling,’ and I pedalled and pedalled and pedalled.”

That challenge was followed by a health scare in Budapest, when he noticed one of his feet was red and splotchy. Two days of forced rest and a treatment of antibiotics for a staph infection enabled him to continue to the final leg of his journey: visiting the Hungarian village of Tolcsva, from where his maternal grandparents immigrated to Canada in 1924.

Suddenly Brock’s travel tale is interrupted as a litigator he knows — “he crushed me so bad when I was young and impressionable” — comes up to the table at Chez Nick Restaurant, the Montreal eatery where lawyers often gather for breakfast.

“You are my idol,” the lawyer tells Brock.

When the lawyer leaves, Brock says, “I don’t think I am an idol.

“Some people are surprised that I was able to take the time off to do something like this and they say to me, ‘I could never take six weeks off to do something like that.’ I say to them, ‘What if you were diagnosed with cancer tomorrow?’

“What got me through this was the idea that this was my chance at survival and I had to do it. This wasn’t a choice. Now I am back at work and not a day passes that I am not profoundly thankful to be alive. I want to continue to try and make my life count for something and I want to continue to count professionally.”